The evolving nature of evangelical Christianity in the United States is marked by a shift from traditional religious practices to a broader cultural and political identity. This change is exemplified in the story of Karen Johnson, a 67-year-old who grew up actively involved in her Lutheran church and taught Sunday school. However, as an adult, Johnson stopped attending church services, reflecting a belief that communion with God doesn’t require church attendance. Her faith now includes personal prayer and following religious content with a right-wing perspective on podcasts and YouTube channels. She notably views former President Donald Trump as a pivotal figure in this context.
This shift among evangelicals is evident in their longstanding alignment with the Republican Party, with a significant focus on conservative cultural issues. Trump’s association with evangelical voters is particularly notable, considering his limited display of religiosity before his presidency. His support from evangelicals is partly attributed to his role in appointing Supreme Court justices aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade. However, it’s suggested that the concept of being evangelical has evolved from strict religious adherence to a more encompassing cultural and political identity.
This redefinition is accompanied by a decline in church attendance, especially among white Americans, including Trump supporters. This trend is pronounced in places like Iowa, where evangelical identity is influential in politics, but actual church involvement has significantly decreased.
The decline in traditional church membership has led to a rise in alternative religious and political information sources like social media and podcasts. This shift has reduced the influence of traditional church leaders and given rise to new influencers who often prioritize political and cultural issues over traditional evangelical concerns.
In the political arena, especially looking toward the 2024 presidential election, this transformation is impacting how candidates engage with evangelical voters. Figures like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are finding that appeals to cultural and political stances resonate more with these voters than traditional religious issues reflecting the broader change in the evangelical community.
The New York Times reports:
“Trump is our David and our Goliath,” Ms. Johnson said recently as she waited outside a hotel in eastern Iowa to hear the former president speak.
White evangelical Christian voters have lined up behind Republican candidates for decades, driving conservative cultural issues into the heart of the party’s politics and making nominees and presidents of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
But no Republican has had a closer — or more counterintuitive — relationship with evangelicals than Mr. Trump.
The twice-divorced casino magnate made little pretense of being particularly religious before his presidency. The ardent support he received from evangelical voters in 2016 and 2020 is often described as largely transactional: an investment in his appointment of Supreme Court justices who would abolish the federal right to abortion and advance the group’s other top priorities. Evangelical supporters themselves often compare Mr. Trump to the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great, who freed a population of Jews even though he was not one of them.
But religion scholars, drawing on a growing body of data, suggest another explanation: Evangelicals are not exactly who they used to be.
Being evangelical once suggested regular church attendance, a focus on salvation and conversion and strongly held views on specific issues such as abortion. Today, it is as often used to describe a cultural and political identity: one in which Christians are considered a persecuted minority, traditional institutions are viewed skeptically and Mr. Trump looms large.
“Politics has become the master identity,” said Ryan Burge, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor. “Everything else lines up behind partisanship.”
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